Strategically positioning the EHEA in a global world

Strategically positioning the EHEA in a global world

What do the next decades have in store for international higher education? This new series of blog posts seeks to provide answers to this fundamental question. Over the next months, you will be able to read a selection of essays penned by thought leaders in the field which have been published in the recent EAIE Anniversary Publication, Possible futures: the next 25 years of the internationalisation of higher education.

The quality of higher education has become a key determinant of reputation and status in a global market. With the onslaught of global rankings, the higher education world is becoming more competitive and multi-polar. While the US and Europe still dominate the upper echelons of global rankings, there is early evidence of a challenge to their position due to the investment strategies of some countries (most notably led by China), and the debilitating effect of the ongoing global economic crisis on others (most notably Ireland and southern Europe). This is leading, on the one hand, to a growing gap in “world-classness”, and, on the other, to the emergence of countervailing strategies to strengthen national and regional higher education and research systems.

Government initiatives to increase international competitiveness

Over the past decade, many governments have copied the Chinese Project 211 (1995), which aimed to build up 100 top level universities to international competitive level; that was followed by Project 985 (1998), which had a more focused objective of developing 10 to 12 world-class universities able to compete with the best universities in the US and Europe. The German government launched the Exzellenzinitiative in 2005. Similar initiatives have been developed in the intervening years by Korea, India, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, France and Denmark, to name just a few. More recently, supra-national regions, led by the MENA states, African Union, ASEAN countries and the European Union, have sought to devise strategies that directly link social and economic development with the performance and productivity of their respective higher education and research systems (Hazelkorn, 2013 forthcoming).

Evolution of Bologna

Across Europe, the Sorbonne Declaration, 1998, and subsequent Bologna Process, emerged as a voluntary arrangement of national governments. It was predicated on the free movement of students, faculty and workers across national boundaries, and anticipated the need for enhanced convergence across national systems in order to compete internationally. Focused on enhancing cooperation, the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué (2009) emphasised the necessity to “fully recognise the value of various missions of higher education, ranging from teaching and research to community services and engagement in social cohesion and cultural development.” Today, there are 47 member states, and the Bologna Process has given way to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), launched in Vienna in 2010 and now firmly implanted as a key component of official EU strategy for economic competitiveness.

From today’s vantage point, the Bologna Process has achieved great success: the introduction of the three cycle system (Bachelor/Master/Doctorate), quality assurance and recognition of qualifications and periods of study (Zgaga, 2012). Sursock has suggested that we have “missed an opportunity … to talk about what education is about” and to agree on a “coherent vision of what kind of educated citizens we need for the 21st century” (Morgan, 2010). Yet, for all these lapses, Bologna has been a model for others. Both the US and Australia have recognised the inherent significance not just in bringing coherence to otherwise disparate national systems, but in creating a system which makes European higher education unique and attractive internationally.

EHEA potential

In a world gone global, the Bologna Process and EHEA provide the basis for a coherent educational roadmap for students and other stakeholders for what often appears to be a mystifying and fragmented landscape of higher education options. More importantly, the EHEA has the capability of strategically positioning Europe’s higher education, capitalising on the benefits of a truly international experience. It presents an opportunity for a stronger European dimension in education during this era of globalisation, which can help improve the status and visibility of European higher education by synergising the educational capacities of EU member states.

What might this look like? Over the last decade, global rankings have purported to measure higher education quality, focusing on a limited set of attributes for which internationally comparable data is available. There has been much criticism of their “norming” effect and the choice of indicators, which do not measure what is meaningful in addition to ignoring the multi-dimensional attributes of European higher education (Hazelkorn, 2011).

The term “total student experience” refers to all aspects of the engagement of students with higher education. Because it shapes future citizens, it is important to understand not only how higher education aids human capital capacity and capability but also how it enhances the ability of individuals to make choices, have control over their lives and contribute to society (Streeting, 2009; McInnis, 2003). Building on the seminal work of Chickering (1969, 1993) and the notion of “the whole student,” it is now widely recognised that satisfaction with the wider student experience is intimately connected with enhancing student performance, including reduction in dropout rates and improving academic standards.

Rather than seeking to position Europe or individual institutions according to their place in the rankings, the EHEA offers a way to actively promote a genuinely international educational experience across diverse institutions, focused on learning outcomes and aided by structured mobility – all within a single framework. Erasmus/Erasmus Mundus and Marie Curie actions provide a small glimpse of what is possible. As Robertson notes (2010), it is a way of projecting European soft power globally, rather than conceptualising it simply as a European initiative. In this way, the EHEA could be synonymous with a quality mark, overcoming concerns of consumer protection by extending quality assurance, qualification recognition and accreditation to transnational or borderless education (Amaral, 2007; Knight, 2002, p13).


 Adelman, C. (2008). Learning Accountability from Bologna: A Higher Education Policy Primer. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Amaral, A. (2007). Higher education and quality assessment. The many rationales for quality. In L. Bollaert, S. Brus, B. Curvale, L. Harvey, E. Helle, H. Toft Jensen, J.

Komljenovic, A. Orphanides & A. Sursock (Eds.), Embedding Quality Culture In Higher Education. A Selection of Papers from the 1st European Forum for Quality Assurance (pp. 6–10). Brussels: EUA.

Chickering, A. (1969, 1973). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

European Commission (2011). The EU and the Bologna Process: shared goals, shared commitments, Supporting growth and jobs. An agenda for the modernisation of Europe’s higher education systems. COM (2011) 567 final, Brussels.

Hazelkorn, E. (2011). Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The Battle for World Class Excellence. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hazelkorn, E. (2013 forthcoming). Striving for “World Class Excellence”: Rankings and Emerging Societies. In D. Araya & P. Marber (Eds.), Higher Education in the Global Age: Universities, Interconnections and Emerging Societies, Routledge Studies in Emerging Societies. New York: Routledge.

Knight, J. (2002). Trade in Higher Education Services: the Implications of GATS. London: The Observatory on borderless higher education.

McInnis, C. (2003, August 24–27). New Realities of the Student Experience: How should universities respond? Keynote at 25th Annual Forum, European Association for Institutional Research, Limerick.

Morgan, J. (2010, March 18). Process Report – Bologna lacks coherent Europe-wide focus. Times Higher Education. Retrieved November 27, 2012.

Robertson, S.L. (2010). The EU, ‘regulatory state regionalism’ and new modes of higher education governance. In Globalisation, Societies and Education, Volume 8, Number 1, (pp. 23–37).

Streeting, W. (2009). Quoted in “Higher education and the student experience”, House of Commons Seminar, 21 April, 2009, HEPI. Retrieved October 29, 2010.

Zgaga, P. (2012). Reconsidering the EHEA Principles: Is there a ‘Bologna Philisophy’? In A. Curaj, P. Scott, L. Vlasceanu & L. Wilson (Eds.), European Higher Education at the Crossroads. Between the Bologna Process and National Reforms (pp17–38) Part 1. Dordrecht: Springer.

Ellen Hazelkorn
Technological University Dublin, IrelandEllen is Joint Managing Partner, BH Associates education consultants, and Professor emeritus and Director/Senior Research Fellow, Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU), Technological University Dublin (Ireland). She was awarded the EAIE Tony Adams Award for Excellence in Research, 2018.